By Gary Feurerberg
Epoch Times Staff Jun 21, 2009
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Internet has expanded the opportunities of citizens to express their views that challenge the authoritarianism of repressive regimes, as seen, for example, in China, Iran and Burma. Other digital media, such as mobile phones, have also played a significant role in getting news and pictures out to the world as well as facilitating communications between critics of repressive governments.
Applications like the social-networking site Facebook and Twitter, the video-sharing site YouTube, and the blog-hosting site Blogspot, are providing new outlets for expression, which can be highly threatening to totalitarian regimes.
Repressive regimes have responded with increasingly sophisticated controls that censor online content, monitor Internet users and intimidate and punish their critics.
To discuss the growing threats to Internet freedom in repressive nations, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing June 16 on Capitol Hill. Representatives from five human rights organizations voiced their concerns on the measures being taken by repressive regimes, and advocated for the Global Online Freedom Act of 2009, which if enacted would prevent U.S. internet companies from cooperating in the censorship and surveillance by repressive regimes.
The methods being used by the repressive regimes are becoming more menacing and insidious. This was especially evident on the day of the hearing when the lead news story was about the huge protests in Iran over the June 12 presidential election.
“…the government intensified its Internet filtering, disrupted social networking sites such as Facebook, and jammed transmissions of text message on mobile phones in an apparent attempt to prevent Iranian citizens from voicing their suspicions of electoral fraud,” said Daniel Calingaert, Deputy Director of Programs, Freedom House.
China is by far the most “advanced” country in applying layers of surveillance, filters, and general policing to the Internet and mobile phone communications. In early June, China announced that the installation of its censorship software, Green Dam, would be mandatory on every PC sold in China. This software, claiming to filter pornography, does much more. In addition to filtering out political content the regime opposes, it will stop e-mails it regards as incendiary, and keep a record of a user’s activity even after the computer is shut down, “with dire implications for the freedom of Chinese computer users,” says the Washington Post (June 13).
Several times during the testimony, praise was given to a group of Falun Gong engineers who formed the Global Internet Freedom (GIF) Consortium, which has developed the single most successful technology in allowing users inside China, Iran and other countries to break through government-installed firewalls and freely access websites on the Internet. On June 16, GIF announced its release of “Green Tsunami,” their software that enables Chinese users to disable or remove Green Dam.
The New Media Fills a Need
The new tools of the Internet and other digital media have been harder to control than traditional media of broadcast and print media. They have been better able to circumvent restrictions and provide increased opportunities for citizen activism.
“Internet has been responsible for improving the quality of traditional news coverage,” said Lucy Morillon, Washington Director, Reporters Without Borders. “Internet users…criticized the distribution of aid after the Sichuan earthquake and their calls for national mobilization ultimately forced Chinese authorities to address the issues at hand.”
“In Egypt, policemen were prosecuted after a video circulated on Internet, showing them torturing a suspect,” said Morillon.
In Iran, foreign press reporters were not allowed to go into the street but were ordered to report from their room in their hotel, said Mehedi Khalaji from the Washington Institute for the Near East Policy. So, the only way to cover the protests was through the Internet and the new media, which “eventually helped coordinate the opposition’s demonstrations,” said Morillon.
Traditional media organizations—newspapers and magazines—have not always been effective to expose human rights abuses in repressive countries. “In 1988, the world received little notice of the riots occurring in Burma and the military junta’s subsequent violent crackdown on demonstrators,” said Morillon. The news of these events trickled out in the weeks and months after they occurred.
“With the help of the Internet and non-traditional media, the blatant human rights abuses that occurred during Burma’s 2007 Saffron Revolution were widely covered. Compelling YouTube footage, often filmed by citizen journalists on cell phones or inexpensive low-resolution cameras, was conveyed around the globe, sparking international outrage,” said Morillon.
The new media produces tens of millions of more citizens as commentators and media producers than traditional media; however, the controls by repressive regimes are “more intrusive and directly affect much larger numbers of citizens,” says Calingaert.
An example of that greater intrusiveness of the Iranian government was given by Khalaji, who said at the hearing that Facebook was blocked Friday morning (June 12—election day) along with Twitter and U2 and some others. But later the Iranian government unblocked Facebook so it could get a “closer look of people’s activities.”
Repressive Governments Strike Back
Over the past several years, there has been a dramatic increase in the filtering of the Internet. In China, Iran, and Tunisia the “pervasive filtering targets “taboo” subjects, such as human rights violations, prominent political figures, oppressed minorities, and official minorities,” says Calingaert.
China is the “World Champion,” says Morillon at filtering content through lists of forbidden keywords, web addresses, or entire domain names, which are regularly updated.
“Users are required to register with an ISP when they purchase Internet access at home or at work, so that authorities can track their online activity,” said Calingaert.
Another method by which repressive regimes use to influence online discussions and spread misinformation and propaganda is to pay pro-government commentators and to finance websites or blogs, testified Calingaert and Morillon.
“The Chinese [regime] employs an estimated 250,000 or more ’50 Cent Party’ commentators, while Russia has a proliferation of Kremlin-affiliated ‘web brigades’…said Calingaert.
“Prison sentences for online violations in China typically range from three to ten years, while in other countries, most sentences range from six months to four years,” said Calingaert.
Global Online Freedom Act Needed, Say Panelists
In 2004 Chinese authorities raided the home of journalist Shi Tao and sentenced him to ten years imprisonment for releasing a Communist Party document on the Party’s plans for handling the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre to an overseas pro-democracy group. Yahoo! had turned over his personal information to Chinese authorities. In 2004, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) likened this act to someone revealing Anne Frank’s address to the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation.
Shi Tao’s arrest and sentencing brought an outcry in the Congress for legislation to prevent this from happening again. Rep. Smith sponsored a bill, the latest version of which is the Global Online Freedom Act of 2009 (GOFA), which would prohibit U.S. Internet companies (e.g., Yahoo! and Google) from cooperating with the efforts of repressive governments to transform the Internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance and use personally identifiable information to track and punish democracy activists.
The panelists urged the passing of this bill. Two of them mentioned that Shi Tao was one of four, whom an Internet company turned over the name, and as a result was imprisoned. T. Kumar, advocacy director, Amnesty International, lambasted the Bush Administration for its State and Justice Departments “for telling the Congressional leadership that if you pass this bill it is going to be difficult to have diplomacy initiated with other countries.”
“[GOFA] is being reintroduced this year and we hope the Obama Administration does not follow the Bush Administration footsteps in trying to block it behind the back [as the Bush Administration had]…We want Obama to take …full leadership,” said Kumar.
The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission is co-chaired by Congressmen James McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and Frank Wolf (R-Virginia).